My most salient memory of the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia is of the bronze sculpture of a war-weary Civil War horse in the Library's courtyard. This is not the customary type of equestrian statue, with the horse depicted as powerful and imposing but purposely shows an animal that is exhausted, half-starved and standing with a back hoof bent, the reason being that the sculpture honors the 1,500,000 horses and mules that lost their lives in the Civil War. The sculpture, by Tessa Pullan, is based on a painting she saw of a horse in a snowstorm, which is no doubt why the sculpture struck a subliminal nerve of memory the moment I saw it.
I grew up in a Mom & Pop tavern in the backwoods of North Idaho and in those days there was a local painter, Joe Breckenridge, who was sort of a cross between Frederic Remington and Cezanne. My Dad paid him to paint Western scenery on the walls and booths. Watching him work, I was reminded of those scenes in Disney movies in which a paint brush would literally throw paint on a canvas and a fully formed scene would spontaneously appear. Using a brush, or even an old sock, Joe would magically materialize Western scenery in moments of work. But he did take a little more time and care in painting on one of the booth tables, at my request, a packhorse in a snowstorm, a horse that looked as worn down as Pullan’s Civil War horse.
The plaque under the sculpture reads:
IN MEMORY OF THE ONE AND ONE HALF MILLION HORSES AND MULES OF THE CONFEDERATE AND UNION ARMIES THAT WERE KILLED, WERE WOUNDED OR DIED FROM DISEASE IN THE CIVIL WAR. MANY PERISHED WITHIN TWENTY MILES OF MIDDLEBURG IN THE BATTLES OF ALDIE, MIDDLEBURG AND UPPERVILLE IN JUNE OF 1863.
There is a second copy of the three-quarter size sculpture at the U.S. Cavalry Museum in Ft. Riley, Kansas, both of these commissioned by Paul Mellon, and a third copy was made to be placed at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. The story of the detailed research and artistry involved in the creation of these horses deserves a separate article; in any case, the memorial at the National Sporting Library is an apt introduction to a library that presumably has the largest collection of equestrian material in the world.
On the roof, above the three gables of the stone and wood Library building, which resembles an English country inn, there is a weather vane with a figure not of a rooster but a stylized horse in profile with flowing mane and tail. If there’s something you want to know about horses or turf and field sports you’ll almost certainly be able to find it in the Library’s collection of 13,000 books, periodicals, photographs, films and manuscripts. Appropriate ambiance in the 15,000 square foot building is provided by paintings and sculptures by famous sporting artists.
The Library was founded in 1954 by George L. Ohrstorm Sr., president of the Orange County Hunt and Alexander Mackay- Smith MFH, editor of The Chronicle of the Horse. Ohrstrom passed away in 1955, but his son, George L. Ohrstrom Jr., has been the guiding force and Chairman of the Board for nearly half a century.
There is a daunting amount of material in the Library’s seven distinct collections–the Horsemanship Collection, the Steeplechase Collection, the Thoroughbred Collection, the Shooting Collection, the Foxhunting Collection, the Sporting Art Collection, and the Angling Collection.
Those who come to the Library to pursue piscatorial interests are, to be sure, outnumbered by those interested in the quadrupeds, but the Angling Collection is not to be taken lightly. Its treasures include a copy of Richard Tracey’s Vox Piscis (1627) and several first editions of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653), which is the third most frequently reprinted book in the English language after the
Bible and the works of Shakespeare. The books range on historical texts on fly fishing to numerous volumes representing the proliferation of fishing literature that began to appear in the early twentieth century.
The books and magazines in which horses figure are so many and varied that giving an adequate summary in a short article is an impossible task. From archaic texts to the illustrate volumes on the art shelves the Library’s collection constitutes a motherlode of information and is irresistible to researchers.
The Steeplechase Collection includes American serials, books and racing calendars dating from the 18th century to today, materials that chronicle the history of the sport in the United States since its beginning in 1824.
The Horsemanship Collection has books ranging from editions of Antoine de Pluvinel’s L’Instruction du Roy en L’Exercise de Monter a Cheval (1623) and the Duke of Newcastle’s Methode et Invention Nouvelle de Dresser Les Chvaux (1657) through hundreds of years of books on every detailed aspect of dressage and jumping disciplines, western and saddle horse riding, endurance, vaulting and therapeutic riding.
In the Foxhunting Collection, where most of the books have red bindings in deference to the color of the coats of the huntsmen, the history of the sport, especially in the United States, is chronicled by both nonfiction and fiction books as well as magazines, letters and original manuscripts. Among the latter is a manuscript by Theodore Roosevelt titled Foxhunting on Long Island. The movie Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001) created a resurgence of popular interest in thoroughbred racing, which began in America in 1665 when Colonial Governor Richard Nicolls established the first race course on Long Island.
In the Library’s Thoroughbred Collection the sport’s history from its beginnings in England and Ireland to its evolution in America is chronicled in more than 500 historical and contemporary books on racing, training, handicapping, pedigree references, race charts and biographies of horses, owners and jockeys. It’s anyone’s guess how many people come away from this collection humming the Fugue for Tinhorns number from Guys and Dolls.
Hunting all over the world is the subject of the materials in the Shooting Collection. Contemporary shooting books abound in the collection, which also has a separate section for books about big game hunting in India and Africa and also contains such rare items as a 1767 edition of Abraham Markland’s Pterplegia or the Art of Shooting-Flying and a copy of the privately printed Ten Days on the Plains by General Henry Eugene Davies, an account of the grandest hunt in American history–an expedition made in 1871 by General Philip Sheridan and some of the country’s richest businessmen, led by Buffalo Bill Cody.
Finally, the Sporting Art Collection is highlighted by books about British and American sporting art from the 18th century to today, with horses keeping a high profile in titles like Lida Fleitman Bloodgood’s The Horse in Art (1931), Sally Mitchell’s The Dictionary of British Equestrian Artists (1985), and Jacqueline Badger Mars’s Portraits of the Winning Horses of the Great St. Leger Stakes Winners (1824). There are also original works by artists preserved in various books and folios.
This is a very sketchy summary of all the National Sporting Library has to offer, and the Library is constantly expanding. Some recent acquisitions have been an early 17th century Italian manuscript on horsemanship by Valerio Piccardini and several rare 16th and 17th century equestrian books from the estate of Capt. Vladimir Littauer, and they have initiated a Fellowship to have scholars and academicians research from their rare books. Chances are that everything there is to know about horses can be discovered at the National Sporting Library, and if there is a proverbial horse of a different color it can be found here.